Pierce Pettis: When Words Alone Fail

A Songwriter's Journey

Music Features Pierce Pettis
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"Sometimes I’ve thought, ‘Maybe I should take the civil services gig and work at the Post Office like Faulkner did, hang out in the back and write.’ On the other hand, realistically, I would drive them crazy and they would drive me crazy. I hate having to tour and be away from my wife and family, but that’s what you do. Truck drivers hate it too. It doesn’t always get to be glamorous."—Pierce Pettis

The opening of the 2004 Decatur Arts Festival has brought an unusual volume of foot traffic to the square on this humid late-May evening. But unlike the hand-holding, leash-gripping folks hurrying down the sidewalk (15 minutes behind schedule, according to their determined grimaces), I’m here for another reason: to catch a Pierce Pettis concert at Eddie’s Attic, one of the nation’s foremost acoustic music venues. The club itself is housed in the upstairs portion of a comfortably worn brick building (formerly the lingerie department of a Belk-Galant department store), situated right around the corner from the aforementioned bevy of shops. In the darkness, the rubicund glow of the Attic’s neon sign casts a faint reflection on the rain-soaked walk.

Eddie Owen, who founded the Attic in the early ’90s, wanted to provide a listening room in which singer/songwriters could share their art without having to compete with the inebriated clamor endemic to most other bars. The intimate, oak-furnished listening room (which feels more akin to a living room) is split into two discrete areas. A dimly illumined bar and walkway along one side of the room, on the other a general seating area full of tables and chairs, most of which sit vacant on this Sunday night. Once the opening act concludes his lackluster set and beats a hasty retreat to the bar, Pettis replaces him on the same thinly carpeted stage that helped launch the careers of John Mayer, Shawn Mullins and the Indigo Girls.

If Pettis is disappointed with the abysmal turn-out, you wouldn’t reckon it from his altogether genial disposition, greeting the crowd warmly—but with a noticeable rasp—before launching into an inspired, romping cover of Mark Heard’s “Another Day in Limbo.” Slapping the strings of his Lowden S25J with feverish determination, he reaches the chorus with shoulders heaving for the breath to belt out, “Blinking away the sunrise / Listening to the wind blow / Angels with dirty faces face another day in limbo.” His dusky voice cracks, faltering slightly on many of the song’s higher notes, but he presses on toward the finish, betraying no hint of frustration.

Pettis, a veteran troubadour who’s been touring almost incessantly since he finished school at Florida State University in 1980, is hardly one to let a head full of yellow pollen get the better of him. Leaving the capo clipped to his guitar’s headstock and keeping the songs in a manageable register, he steers the set into a more subdued cadence, opting for tunes less vocally ambitious but just as emotionally charged. From a slightly ragged voice—one that might have threatened to handicap his performance—emerges a fragile, broken fervor. I’m reminded that transcendence often requires a measure of joyful incapacity.

I’ve been fortunate to see Pettis play this room several times over the past few years and have grown accustomed to the levity in his stage presence, the fitful charisma with which he stirs his audience into a cackling frenzy by spouting whatever giddy nonsense enters his head. I’ve seen him take a healthy swig from a brimming pint of Guinness, only to smack his lips together and quip into the microphone, “Mmm … rich chocolaty Ovaltine!” Or introducing “Georgia Moon,” a song inspired by the “dark, creepy parts of Georgia like you see in the movies, where there’s stuff hanging in the trees,” only to chase this statement with, “I lived in Atlanta for 10 years and we had stuff hanging in the trees … but that was toilet paper.” Then before the laughter subsided he’d launch into yet another song so lovely, so painfully true that it made me want to find a vacant bathroom stall in which I might discreetly bawl my eyes out.

Tonight, all Pettis has the energy to offer is his earnest best, a tender heart, packaged in one three-and-a-half minute song after another. And it’s enough to hold this meager audience hostage, no one subtly collecting personal effects and slipping out early, every last person murmuring hearty approval when asked politely in the night’s waning hours, “I know it’s getting late, but would you mind if I just play for a while?” This is no longer just a performance—we’ve been permitted to eavesdrop on a very personal expression, one songwriter’s faith in the healing properties of a well-crafted melody. And not “healing” in the sense of Chicken Soup for the Shat-Upon Soul. I mean the guy’s voice cleared up entirely by the time he finally walked offstage shortly after midnight.

Three days after the Eddie’s Attic gig, I’m braving the last gasp of Wednesday morning commuter traffic on I-24, heading west into Nashville. I have a date with Pettis in The Parlor Studio, a lavishly renovated bungalow-turned-studio on Music Row where he and producer Garry West are applying the finishing touches to his fourth Compass Records release, Great Big World. Eventually, I pull into the studio’s dirt parking lot out back and head indoors to enjoy a Krispy Kreme doughnut in the studio’s kitchen while waiting for everyone else to arrive.

One hour later I’m sitting on a couch adjacent to Pettis in the studio’s control room. Dan Dugmore, renowned multi-instrumentalist and Nashville session player is perched behind his pedal steel, punctuating the nostalgic “You’re Gonna Need This Memory” with gently swelling accents. After the first couple takes, Pettis informs him demurely that he wants to leave plenty of breathing room in the tune, that he mainly wants the steel to provide understated “emotional cues.”

Dugmore picks up a pencil, scribbles a few notations on his chart before beginning another take. While the steel virtuoso runs through it once more from the top, Pettis closes his eyes and rocks back and forth on the edge of the couch, focusing intently on the performance. Eventually work on the song is complete and Pettis mock-chastises Dugmore for putting him and West in the uncomfortable position of having to choose which one of his amazing takes to use in the final mix. Dugmore stretches out a bit on “Love Will Find You Again,” which calls for a more involved, sweeping steel part, before moving on to one last tune, “Cracker Jack Ring,” to which he adds some gritty lap steel and a mandolin part to accent Pettis’ rollicking acoustic guitar strut.

This part of the work done, we break for lunch and I’m able to steal a few minutes with Pettis alone in the kitchen after we scarf down some Southwestern salads West has kindly had delivered to the studio. The conversation begins with Pettis lighting on one of the afternoon’s recurring topics—airlines and their utter disregard for the traveling musician: “I hate airline baggage handlers, I mean they’re really the enemy. It’s all about what you go through as a traveling musician, what they do to your stuff. I’ve had three guitars destroyed, and I can’t afford to be replacing guitars.”

Nefarious baggage handlers aside, you’d expect Pettis to be well-calloused at this point to the myriad vexations involved in earning one’s living as a traveling bard. After all, his musical career has been fraught with innumerable obstacles, both personal and professional. Not long after starting out as an unpaid staff songwriter for Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Ala., (during this time Pettis landed his first cut, “Song at the End of the Movie,” on a Joan Baez record), he set out on the road, playing any hole-in-the-wall dive or fern bar that would accept the type of songs he was rabidly determined to play: his own, of course.

“We were coming off the end of the disco years and people didn’t even know what live music was, and here I am up there singing whatever and they’re yelling at me to do Jimmy Buffett songs. And I refused. I played all my own songs and they hated me for that … I played for years in some places that would really kick the life out of you.”

It wasn’t until the mid-’80s, when he finally made his way up the East Coast and began performing regularly around the Village in New York City, that he finally discovered an audience for the folk music he was writing.

“I was shocked that people up there actually listened to your songs. I mean, I had never experienced that. I thought people’s job was just to boo you. That was all I had known in the Southeast. For so many years I was conditioned to this wall of noise and really, in a way, I could say or do anything I wanted.

“I had a friend, we did a duo for a while in Florida, and we played all these places and we would change the words to all the songs, making them dirty or silly. Like we did ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ all the way through and changed the line to ‘holding her dead body next to mine.’ People didn’t even notice. You’d be in some lounge and there’d be like nobody there except for one poor ol’ drunk in the corner, and you’d do that line and he’d look up like he wasn’t sure. You’d do anything to keep yourself from going insane.”

While Greenwich Village didn’t prove to be everything he’d dreamed (“I figured Dylan was gonna be hanging out. Of course he was long gone. It was all Andy Warhol skinny-tie bands or whatever that was.”), Pettis released his independent debut, Moments, in 1987 and joined the city’s thriving acoustic music scene—the Fast Folk movement—alongside talented songwriters such as Shawn Colvin, Cliff Eberhardt, Suzanne Vega and John Gorka.

“There were all these super-talented people who had so much confidence and poise because they had been swimming with a real fast group of fish for a while. So when you’re there you had to swim faster. It also helped me separate what was genuinely good and what wasn’t because all the cheap shots you can get away with in bars, like ‘yeah, I can do a Buffett’—that doesn’t fly in New York.”

Pettis spent the rest of the ’80s and early ’90s honing his craft, recording a handful of albums for Windham Hill’s High Street label—While The Serpent Lies Sleeping, Tinseltown and Chase the Buffalo. In addition, a number of accomplished songwriters took him under their wing (including Gamble Rogers, whom Pettis memorialized in “Remembering Gamble,” a lush acoustic instrumental recorded for Buffalo). Then, in 1988, Tom Willett introduced Pettis both to the Southern California acoustic/rock scene and to Mark Heard—the songwriter who would become the most salient influence in his career thereafter. Heard’s music impacted Pettis so much, in fact, that every album he’s recorded since 1993’s Chase The Buffalo opens with a Mark Heard cover.

“I couldn’t imagine any of my albums without it. It always adds energy and it’s almost, if not always, the best song on the album because [Mark’s] such a great writer. Also, I just love his stuff and I knew him, so I feel like I know the songs in away.”

While he consistently pays tribute to Heard on his records, Pettis hardly gets lost in the shadow of his late musical mentor. He’s achieved distinction in his own right, accruing a prestigious “New Folk” award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1987. And, during his tenure as a staff songwriter for PolyGram in the late ’90s (“that was the closest I ever came to having a real job”), he co-wrote “You Move Me” with Grammy-winning producer Gordon Kennedy. Garth Brooks not only picked up the track for his 1997 release, Sevens, but also released it as a single. The song eventually peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, earning Pettis an ASCAP award and a new joke for his concert repertoire: “I’d like to do for you guys a little medley of my hit song.”

Pettis’ last several albums on current label Compass Records—Making Light of It, Everything Matters and State of Grace—have cemented his reputation as a “songwriter’s songwriter,” an apt description, considering his habit of engaging in regular co-writes, working with such songwriting giants as Art Garfunkel and David Wilcox (who collaborated on Great Big World’s title track). When asked his impression of Pettis, Wilcox responds, “I enjoy writing with Pierce because he expects a lot from a song. He knows that music can find the source of hope in tough times and heal the heart when words alone fail.”

A couple weeks after returning from Nashville and getting back to work, I receive a FedEx envelope containing a much-anticipated CD-R—rough mixes of the tracks on Great Big World. Like the Eddie’s Attic show weeks earlier, the churning acoustic rhythm of “Another Day in Limbo” kicks things off. Pettis’ mildly grainy vocals duck and swerve with commanding swagger—sans pesky allergens—as he belts out dense, poetic verse that could have only come from the pen of Mark Heard (one of the few artists whose lyrics hold up as well as Dylan’s when left to fend for themselves alone on paper: “Facing the sky / As the day burns away / Is a desert in mourning / Sheltering the dead stones / Cradle of the lost bones / Home of eternal comings and goings”).

Like the title track on 2001’s State of Grace, “Alabama 1959” conjures a vision of Pettis’ home state (and his early childhood), seemingly distilled through a flickering reel of celluloid. The song—inspired by a batch of his family’s old home-movies from the ’50s and ’60s—marries cascading acoustic guitar to the nuanced crescendos of a keening fiddle and glittering organ hum. Pettis sings, “Daddy had hair / Mom was thin / Why, look at the silly clothes they wore back then / Studebaker truck parked in the drive / Alabama 1959.” Simulating the experience of a slideshow, Pettis methodically progresses from nostalgic image to image, and the lump in your throat expands with each vibrantly rendered picture.

As the album rolls along—from the haunting “Leonardo” (a fascinating survey of the eccentric 15th-century artist/inventor inspiring Dan Brown’s pseudo-historical thriller) and the jaunty “Cracker Jack Ring” (which Pettis dubs “your basic redneck love song,” about a John Cusackian romantic who sells his red Trans Am in order to buy an engagement ring for his beloved) to “Song of Songs” (an exultant, deeply personal declaration of love, dedicated to his bride, Michele) — it becomes increasingly clear that the power of Pettis’ songwriting lies in its unpretentious sublimity. When he explained to me in the studio what he felt was country music’s primary strength, he might as well have been describing his own songwriting approach.

“It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Whatever it says is an understatement. It doesn’t hit you on the head and brag about how it’s been to college. It says things in a way that people would actually say them in real life. It never really loses its humility.”

To his credit, Pettis has yet to succumb to the creative pitfalls and musical identity crises that trip up so many musicians: Puzzling genre leaps. Outlandish concept albums. Overwrought lyrics. Hidden tracks. (While we’re on the subject of hidden tracks, God help the musician who whores him- or herself out to this vapid little trick — if I want to hear the song more than once, don’t make me search through eleven minutes of dead air.) Pettis’ gift has aged gracefully, like a fine single malt Scotch, and he’s still doing the same thing he was 20 years ago right out of college. Only more sensitively, more compassionately. But time isn’t the sole factor responsible for this development. Ten years ago, a therapist helping Pettis recover from the agonizing dissolution of his 13-year marriage to first wife, Meg, diagnosed the songwriter with ADD.

“Before [receiving treatment for ADD],” Pettis explains in a 2001 special column for Performing Songwriter, “I think I was pretty angry/frustrated much of the time. And that anger found its way into my music and the way I saw the world. I find my songs from that before period to be a bit preachy and mean. After, there’s this new sense of peace and self-worth. I’m convinced my writing is better, too—more positive, less harsh and self-centered.”

This heightened sense of empathy is evident on “Black Sheep Boy,” another song from the new album, which expresses Pettis’ deep fondness for a younger victim of ADD—his son George (whose back graces the cover of 1996’s Making Light of It). Over softly pulsing strings, Pettis sings, “Can’t stop his hands / Or make his feet be still / Tells himself he won’t / But he knows he always will / Be the black sheep boy.” No doubt the same grace and affection is lavished on Pettis’ newest arrival, Owen, born in the fall of 2003.

Eddie Owen, who booked Pettis to play the Attic shortly after the club opened in ’92, attests to his friend’s well-earned spot in the upper echelon of the songwriting elite, referring to him as “one of the best storytellers in the game.” And with the upcoming release of Great Big World, a gorgeous collection of songs heralding a sizable leap forward in Pettis’ ever-maturing gift, we can expect more great things in the offing. But, while Pettis is sure to remain humble about his accomplishments, this too is an understatement.

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